Galileo Galilei was vacationing in Venice on the chill night of May 11, 1606, when Pope Paul V excommunicated the city’s entire government. As further punishment for its militancy abroad, Venice was placed under interdict, meaning Catholic priests could not remain on the land. “They walked to the ships,” Galileo scoffed, “each with a crucifix hanging off him … expelled, much to the sorrow of the many women devoted to them.”

Five years later, Galileo was in Rome. Hailed as a genius of astronomy for his use of the telescope, he was granted an audience before the very Pope who had threatened his beloved Venice. Leaning down to kiss Paul’s feet, he was yanked back. “His Holiness would not have me speak kneeling,” Galileo recalled, “for I was simply too extraordinary.”

One Empire, Two Worlds

As I was writing Heaven on Earth: How Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo Discovered the Modern World, I found that every famous astronomer involved in the discovery of a moving Earth lived with the curious duality of science and Church, in the contexts of two vastly different cities. All had their moments in the free city of Venice, looking down on a row of priests with slightly acid condescension, and all had their moments in epic Rome, celebrated by the seemingly immortal Establishment powers that be.

At the basis of this opposition was, for these scientists especially, the new versus the old. And no other was so physically close to these opposing forces than Galileo. Venice and Rome were but a day’s ride away from each other. In Venice, where Galileo traveled more regularly, he befriended patricians with massive libraries which, because they were privately owned, gave preference to secular, even heretical works of literature. The merchant city was booming and moving toward pure capitalism, helped by a fresh supply of gold from colonial imports. In Galileo’s work, we can witness the very means of knowledge production shifting to suit the interests of free capital—Galileo’s scientific method became increasingly adversarial and competitive.

“His Holiness would not have me speak kneeling,” Galileo said, “for I was simply too extraordinary.”

When Galileo vacationed to Rome, he carried with him that learned secularism and bourgeois Venetian sass. But he also brought the cultural inheritance that inevitably follows centuries of Catholic rule. Many associate Galileo with radical, innovative science; fewer recognize that, despite protestations from his more poetic friends, he despised modern art. Galileo is also widely associated with his infamous Roman trial, where, threatened with the charge of heresy, he was forced to abjure his belief in a moving Earth. It’s less well known that after the verdict, Galileo said he would never renounce Catholicism, even in the face of death. The Inquisition made an example of him, as if to make an example of modernity and its perils—because modernity was looking a lot like a disunited Catholic Church.

What more could Galileo have done to save himself? Very little. Catholics of his time published blasphemies daily. What he expressed in scientific writing was infinitely tamer than the scurrilities Galileo heard in Venice. Many of his actions were inspired by a desire to defend his inherited Catholic Church from future irrelevance—if only because he was Catholic, selfishly seeking to preserve his own honor.

Galileo’s life and even scientific practice exude this kind of profound anxiety, the stateless no-man’s-land of the scientists lingering between the spirits of Venice and Rome. His drama is existential in the Kierkegaardian sense, because, for almost the first time, a famous man operated in between certainties about God. And this peculiar tension, this deep and abiding angst, remains a kind of first and best warning of the necessary dangers of modern living.

L. S. Fauber’s Heaven on Earth is out now from Pegasus